Radioactive Fossil Wastewater Still Flows, 40 Years After Damning Insider Report
Nearly 40 years after the American Petroleum Institute (API) warned industry officials that oil and gas wastewater is “significantly” radioactive, regulation remains non-existent, callously leaving largely unaware industry workers and the broader public exposed to life-threatening toxins.
Not mincing words about its own industry, the API reported in 1982 that “almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides that reside finally in process equipment, product streams, or waste.” The report (literally) underscored that such “contamination can produce significant occupational exposure,” writes DeSmog Blog
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Neither did API equivocate about the need to take action to protect workers. DeSmog Blog writes that “some of the report’s most stark language warned about the possibility of federal regulation of the industry’s radioactive wastes,” including the possibility that “the regulation of radionuclides could impose a severe burden on API member companies”. It added that keeping an eye on regulatory actions “would be prudent”.
As it turns out, the industry needn’t have worried about regulation—an unfortunate fact revealed by Rolling Stone in its recent exposé of the ongoing and devastating impacts of radioactive wastewater in the age of the oil and gas fracking.
While oil and gas wells today pump out “nearly one trillion gallons a year, enough to flood Manhattan almost shin-high every day,” Rolling Stone wrote, “there is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream, the disposal of which could present dangers at every step—from being transported along America’s highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity.”
DeSmog Blog points out that the trillion gallons are “literally a river of waste—enough to replace all the water flowing from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two and a half days.”
Misleadingly called “brine”—as if it were composed of everyday table salt, notes DeSmog—this wastewater is a slurry of poisons, filled with carcinogens and often carrying “serious amounts of radioactive materials”.
Citing the Rolling Stone report, DeSmog Blog says brine from fracking in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale formation has been found to contain “levels of radium as high as 28,500 picocuries per litre”, a threshold “hundreds of times as much as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow in industrial discharges from other industries.”
Those levels of contamination are possible because “oil and gas industry waste isn’t regulated” in the same way as waste from other industries, “slipping instead through loopholes carved out in the nation’s cornerstone environmental laws, including exemptions for the industry in federal laws covering hazardous waste.”
Citing a 1993 paper by the Society of Petroleum Engineers that also urged industry to lobby against “over-regulation”, DeSmog says efforts were made by some oil-producing states, like Louisiana, to shore up protections against toxic wastewater. However, “state and federal regulators largely failed to act.”
Certainly, Louisiana’s bid to protect its workers proved insufficient for the oilfield workers who, suffering from a range of cancers, launched a lawsuit in 2011, charging that workplace exposure to radioactive materials had made them sick. That case ended in 2016, after a series of individual closed settlements.
And yet the damage continues, DeSmog says, citing the Rolling Stone report. “Radioactive drilling waste slosh[es] into a striking array of corners,” with more than 10.5 million gallons sprayed onto the roads of northwestern Pennsylvania in 2016, purportedly to keep dust down—on roads where Amish children still walk barefoot.
“The waste has also been sold at Lowe’s, bottled as ‘AquaSalina’ and marketed as a pet-safe way to fight ice and salt, though an Ohio state lab found it contains radium at more than 40 times the levels the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows in discharge from industry,” DeSmog writes.
And then there’s the loosely-monitored cavalcade of 5,000-gallon brine trucks that rumbles through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York, carrying toxic wastewater from the wellhead to treatment plants or disposal sites.
In the wake of the Rolling Stone report, environmental groups like Food &Water Watch are demanding congressional hearings. DeSmog Blog notes that the report landed nine months after “the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency decided it was ‘not necessary’ to update the rules for toxic waste from oil and gas wells.”